Despite a few lingering concerns about the elections becoming too political and removing the power of the vote, the Board of Education voted Tuesday 5-3 in favor of .
Discussion concerning the move centered on the possible politicization of the elections and thoughts on the 2 percent cap.
Gov. Chris Christie recently signed a bill that allows school board elections to be moved to November by the school board, the local municipalities or a petition from 15 percent of voters registered to vote in the most recent presidential election.
With the move, the school budget will not be voted on unless it goes higher than the state-mandated 2 percent cap.
The already voted to have the elections moved, but the Bridgewater Township Council opted to wait until it heard a decision from the Board of Education.
As for the actual logistics of the law, with the decision to approve, all board members will have their terms extended by seven months, with the annual reorganization meeting moved to January.
In addition, according to Board of Education President Evan Lerner, currently the school districts share $30,000 worth of costs for the April elections. That cost, he said, would have gone up by about $5,000 if the board had opted to keep elections in April.
With the move, the district is relieved of most costs, except for the possible rare case in which additional booths are needed to accommodate extra questions on the ballot.
“That additional cost would be shared and agreed upon, but the county clerk says that’s in a rare circumstance,” Business Administrator Peter Starrs said.
The board itself remained divided in discussions about the move, and residents, who turned out in droves for Tuesday’s meeting to express their thoughts on the move, remained divided as well.
For several residents, they said they do not want to lose the opportunity to vote on the budget.
“I voted for a number of you, and I appreciate your work,” resident Jim Fieseler said. “But I never voted for you with the intention of giving away the right to vote for the school budget.”
On the other hand, several residents applauded for one teacher who spoke before the board about the problem that arises when a budget actually fails and goes before the township council for cuts to be made.
“As a board, I don’t understand why there would be any question about moving the elections if the board is being responsible and staying under the cap,” seventh-grade resource teacher Elizabeth Ford-Colucci said. “The last time the budget didn’t pass, it was horrific, and it was a horrible experience for everyone.”
And as a teacher at the , Ford-Colucci said, she has seen the loss of programs that the school has never gotten back, including intramural sports.
“At the end of the day, the place is a tomb because there is nothing for the kids to do,” she said. “If there is something that can ensure the budgets pass and continue to provide services, to me it’s a no-brainer.”
Other residents said they believe it would be best to wait a year and see what happens with other districts that opt to move the elections.
“What we’ve seen over the weeks is chaos, with a couple hundred districts deciding to move and others deciding not to,” said resident Howard Teichman. “It should have been one decision made statewide. The problem with moving is that we would be taking a leap into the great unknown, and that is to put the nonpartisan election with partisan, and I’ve never seen that, I don’t know how that’s going to work.”
Teichman said he believes the school elections will get lost amid higher level elections, including presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial.
“I think the balance comes down to keeping the elections in April,” he said.
Resident Liz Lande expressed a similar thought.
“One of the best things about the board is that we don’t know how they all feel politically,” she said. “If we move the elections to November, there is a good chance it would make it easy for candidates to come together with town council candidates.”
Resident Jackie Barlow said she believes it makes the most sense to hold off on the vote for now, and take more time to consider.
The decision to move the elections to November is a four-year one, and will last until 2015.
“If we want to be prudent, it’s important to take a wait-and-see attitude to see how it plays out in other districts,” Barlow said. “I don’t know why we have to be the forerunner.”
But Lerner said he believes waiting will not help the district in future years. Instead, he said, Bridgewater residents would not be able to compare the outcomes in other townships to what could have happened here.
“Some townships will find local parties exerting too much influence, some will find nothing of the sort,” he said. “But waiting one year will not tell us what Bridgewater will do.”
For those members of the board in favor of the move—Jeffrey Brookner, Ann Marie Mead, Lynne Hurley, Daniel Petrozelli and Lerner—they said they believe the elections will not become politicized, and that the most important thing to remember is there is almost no chance the budget will fail, so long as they remain at the 2 percent cap.
“All of the negatives of the law are in some cases significant, but speculative, and they are dramatically outweighed by the positive,” Brookner said. “The real flaw with the law as it stands is not the vote, but what happens if the vote fails. It is the most asinine thing.”
If a budget fails, Brookner said, it goes to the township council for cuts. The last time the council was required to do that, it ended up cutting $1 million from the budget.
“Their comment to me was that for every one person who told them they cut too much, there were 10 who told them they didn’t cut enough,” he said. “They believe that if they had to do it again, we would be looking at multimillion dollar cuts.”
For Hurley, taking away the vote on the budget as long as it remains under the cap is not a problem, and she believes the best way to preserve what the board does is to move the election.
“When it fails, it’s a partisan budget,” she said. “I was finance chair for the last budget that failed, and we tried to spend and save what we could for the kids, but we also learned that unfortunately a lot of people who vote in April don’t understand the budget and don’t understand what happens to a failed budget.”
Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder said the budget issue is one of his main reasons for wanting to move the elections.
“Cutting millions of dollars from a failed budget that had already been scrutinized results in a loss of staff [and programs], and we shouldn’t continue to take those risks,” he said.
And board members in favor of moving the elections said they don’t believe the concern of the elections becoming too politicized is necessarily valid.
“For those who think the April elections are not politicized, they are kidding themselves,” Lerner said.
Brookner said the names of those candidates running for school board would not be listed as Republican or Democrat. And, he said, there is currently legislation in progress to prohibit using partisan funds for financing the campaigns of board of education candidates.
Board of Education Vice President Patrick Breslin and board members Cindy Cullen and Jill Gladstone voted against the move, citing concerns about taking away the public’s right to vote, among other reasons.
Board member board member Arvind Mathur was not present at the meeting.
“I think that the right to vote on the school budget is another piece on checks and balances, and it is the essence of local control that is the cornerstone of education,” Gladstone said. “A guaranteed school budget is certainly enticing, but there are other things that have to be considered.”
For example, Gladstone said, there is no guarantee that the state-mandated cap will stay at 2 percent, and it could go down to 0 percent.
“If the cap changes to 0 percent, and we really do need 2 percent, it will be hard to change to that,” she said. “I also think that the November election date throws a wrench into the school planning year. If we have to go above the cap and have increased enrollment, we can’t put things into place until we know if the budget passes.”
If a budget has to be voted on, and fails according to the law, the district is required to revert back to a previously approved temporary budget that must stay within the mandated cap.
Still, the resolution to move the election passed, and Bridgewater-Raritan joins such districts as Bedminster, Bernards, Bound Brook, Branchburg, Somerville, Warren, Somerset Hills and Watchung Hills in holding them in November instead of April for the next four years.
“Let’s take this opportunity,” Petrozelli said. “One failed budget outweighs all the negatives of this. We don’t want to go through this, never mind what the kids will go through.”